We look back at the perfect pairing of cinema legends Jackie Chan and the late, great Anita Mui.
The individual persona of the action hero no longer seems to apply. Liam Neeson has become the new Bruce Willis, himself taking Charles Bronson’s place as the normal guy who constantly finds himself pitted against criminals and terrorists. Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham continually bicker, squabble and race to be the most bulletproof bald man in Hollywood. Their roles have become interchangeable quip and bicep cut-outs.
If there’s one star you could never say that about, it’s Jackie Chan.
Chan was always his own breed of action hero. An acrobatic perfectionist known for doing his own stunts (time and time again, as per the blooper-reels), his onscreen persona was laced with vulnerability, giving the Hong Kong-born actor the chance to create comedy out of his characters’ failings. Over the years he has taken endless hits, broken countless bones and worked with more stars than most could dream of in one career. But while double-acts with Sammo Hung, Owen Wilson and Chris Tucker have given Chan notable success, perhaps Chan’s greatest match can be found in the late Anita Mui.
The ‘Madonna of Asia’, Mui began singing and performing on stages and streets at the age of four, going on to become the first winner of the New Talent Singing Awards. She carved out her place on the Cantopop scene with her extravagant outfits and edgy personality, eventually making the oft-made transition to acting where she found even more success with award-winning turns in films such as Taylor Wong’s Behind The Yellow Line and Stanley Kwan’s Rouge. Perhaps due to her harsh upbringing and longing for love, Mui proved adept at dramatic roles. Working with Jackie Chan, however, let the world see her funny side.
Their first onscreen collaboration came in the form of Miracles: The Canton Godfather (also known as Mr. Canton And Lady Rose in the native Chinese, and Black Dragon in America), a 1989 remake of Frank Capra’s Pocketful Of Miracles, itself a redo of his own 1933 film Lady For A Day. As ever, Chan spins a number of plates, serving as the film’s director, writer, stunt coordinator and lead actor as he creates his love letter to the golden age of Hollywood.
He plays a down-on-his-luck Kuo Cheng-Wah who arrives in 1930s Hong Kong and is immediately conned out of all his money. After buying a rose from a street seller (Gua Ah-Leh), he quickly finds himself fighting for the life of a mob boss and unwittingly being chosen as his replacement. Kuo, being the kind-hearted soul we’ve come to expect from Chan’s characters, decides to change the gang’s business direction from criminal activity to more legitimate means. Enter Mui as Luming Yang, a singer and dancer looking to repay her father’s debt to Kuo’s gang-lord predecessor.
What follows is a delicate balance of screwball farce and light-hearted crime as Kuo and Luming become entangled in a plan to pose as the wealthy family of the rose-seller when her estranged daughter visits with wealthy fiancé and father-in-law in tow. Perhaps Chan’s grandest directorial effort, Miracles sees him strive to make a film more in the vein of the classic cinema he appears to love, as opposed to the kung-fu pictures that had become his trademark genre.
Which is not to say Miracles is absent of fighting – in fact, the finale is one of Chan’s greatest sequences. Captured by a rival gang’s boss, Chan and his stunt-team work their way up the scaffolds of a rope factory and back down again (some quicker than others) while throwing punches and kicks every which way. Chan’s team’s ability is as evident as that of the man himself, with each member being given their own intricate manoeuvre or chance at taking down Kuo from increasingly dangerous advantages.
Likewise, Mui gets to flex her vocal muscles as the nightclub’s lounge-singer, with her cabaret performance showcased in a glamourous match-cut montage that sees her go from colourful outfit to outfit as the club’s success rises. The beginnings of her comedic chemistry with Chan can be seen when Kuo, having been a little jealous and more than a little neglectful, begs an ungratified Luming not to leave, accidentally tearing her outfit to shreds and knocking her around in a chair in the process.
If there was ever an official case to be made for Mui as the perfect complement to Chan’s brand of comedy, The Legend Of Drunken Master would be it. A loose sequel to 1978’s Drunken Master, this martial arts classic based on Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung sees Chan face off against a group of smugglers who are set on stealing ancient artefacts. Wong specialises in ‘drunken boxing’, a decidedly limber style of brawling in which the fighter imitates the loose movements of the intoxicated, which gives Chan carte blanche to bumble through his battles with seemingly impossible gusto. Not to mention the goofiest grin of his career.
While Chan tackles his opponents in spectacularly choreographed fashion, Mui threatens to steal his scenes as Mahjong-loving stepmother Ling. Much like Luming in Miracles, Ling is another shrewd character who is slyer than her husband realises. Armed with her own kung-fu skills, as well as crocodile tears that she can turn on like a faucet to get her out of trouble, Ling gives Mui her juiciest role of her three films with Chan. It’s often said that Chan’s physicality is reminiscent of silent cinema’s greatest actors, not just in his stunts, but in his facial expressions and full-body movements. In watching Mui it becomes apparent that she understands the rules of the game as much as he does. Like Chan, her body seems almost animated, always making the most of the frame, and while his face portrays a dopey kindness, Mui’s raised eyebrow and pouting lips can be as cutting as they are infatuating.
Jackie Chan’s big break into North American markets came one year later in 1995, but at the cost of a worthy role for Mui. Rumble In The Bronx throws Chan into 90s New York, or, at least, 90s Vancouver posing as 90s New York, as he visits family, helps Mui open her supermarket and fights off the punks and suits intent on disturbing the peace. With heavily dubbed dialogue, overacting villains and death-defying stunts (the jump from parking garage to fire escape is an ankle shattering highlight) Rumble In The Bronx falls into the other side of Chan’s filmography in which the viewer is there to see him do what he does best – plot need not apply.
Carrying on from his other work, he uses refrigerators, shopping carts and even a pinball machine against his foes, always utilising what the viewer sees is already there – to Jackie Chan it seems a film set and an arsenal are one and the same. The only thing missing is something more for Mui to do. Introduced early in the film, she is quickly sidelined for the other female lead and Chan’s love interest, Françoise Yip. Ultimately, Mui feels a little pushed out of the picture, though one of the film’s biggest (and most destructive) set-pieces lets her play a Buster Keaton of sorts, though in a much more compromising position…
Sadly, Anita Mui succumbed to cervical cancer in 2003. She was only 40. As with any artist or actor who passes away at a young age, we’re often left wondering what might have been. When faced with the unequivocal chemistry between Mui and Chan, this is especially so.
What projects would they have embarked on together? We shall never know. What we can be certain of, however, is the friendship that these two Hong Kong giants shared. The patented Jackie Chan end-credit blooper-reels usually reveal the flubbed lines and botched stunts, but in the case of these three films, we see a little more: two of Asian cinema’s greatest sharing their time in the sun together.
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